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G raham Wake is hardly looking at me but one glance is enough. Each week envelopes stuffed with ponytails arrive at his office. Every day, one or two women visit to have their hair valued, cut off, and restyled. Some are bored with long hair, others need the money, and a few are raising money for charity. The rest are for hair extensions, which is what my locks could become. It feels faintly embarrassing to be discussing the monetary value of something as personal as my hair. But perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised at Hair clipping women looking for discreet women's hair has always been a contentious issue.
From orthodox Jews, Muslims, and nuns covering it for modesty, to a badge of femininity and beauty in fairytales such as Rapunzel, hair has always exerted a powerful metaphorical pull. Even in today's more secular world it acts as a lightning rod for our attitudes to women: something US gymnast Gabby Douglas discovered when her gold medal win at the Olympics was overshadowed by a row over whether her messy ponytail reflected badly on the black community.
Miley Cyrus's decision to cut her hair short in the summer was taken as a that another teen pop star's life was spiralling out of controlmuch like Britney Spears in Today, hair is more than just a symbol: it is big business. From India to Peru, the human hair trade has spread across the globe, and it has the UK in its grasp. And according to Dawn Riley from Balmain Hairwhich sells extensions to thousands of salons and hundreds of wholesalers, this is only the beginning. We are now seeing the growth that colour [hair dye] saw 30 years ago.
A stylist is finishing off a head of dramatic, tumbling curls for Bianca Gascoigne, a glamour model and reality TV contestant. With her thick, false lashes emphasising her wide-set eyes, the cascade of hair makes her look like a Disney drawing. Laughing, she agrees she likes to look like "a princess": "Hair extensions make you feel glamorous," she says, explaining she first started wearing clip-in fake hair as a teenager, keen to copy celebrities such as Christina Aguilera.
Now, she says, everyone she knows has them. I watch as a woman in her 40s with long, streaked, blond hair has some extensions that have fallen out refitted. Thin strands of hair topped by a "polymer" — a covered metal ring — are wrapped around tiny clumps of her hair in neat rows, a centimetre or so from her scalp.
It's fiddly work, and it's fascinating to watch the stylist gently heat the bond so it stays put. Doesn't it weigh her hair down? No, she insists, "you can't feel them, you don't even know it's there.
You look great without even trying. Emir says the UK's passion for extensions began with Victoria Beckham. Among hairdressers specialising in Afro-Caribbean hair, however, extensions have been popular for three decades or more, according to independent hairdresser Amanda Biddulph.
Black British women may not visit salons as regularly as their US counterparts, whose styling habits were investigated in Chris Rock's documentary, Good Hair, but in the last decade, demand for extra hair has really taken off.
Once, extensions were the preserve of women in their late 20s to mids, says Biddulph, but now she regularly sees year-olds with inch extensions, and has refused to put extensions into the hair of girls as young as Not even the fact that incorrect removal and overuse of extensions and weaves are linked to traction alopecia — a form of hair loss Naomi Campbell is suspected of having after pictures emerged showing bald patches in her hair — puts people off.
Some women in the public eye may prefer to keep the "help" they get with their hair secret Gascoigne says, perhaps naively, that people can't tell if she wears them. And after a L'Oreal advert starring Cheryl Cole drew complaints because she was wearing extensions, Emir says some of her famous clients have made her confidentiality agreements.
Several of the experts I speak to tell me emphatically that they believe the Duchess of Cambridge has had extensions — but even if she had, it's unlikely she would discuss it. Reality show participants, however, have no such qualms, says Riley. They wear it as a badge of pride — I can afford extensions, so I have extensions. In Liverpool, at hair suppliers Rapunzel City of Hairteenagers in school uniform are a common sight, says owner Emma Canty.
Fake hair accessories such as plaited hair bands, meanwhile, are also sold in highstreet shops such as Topshop. Theresa Yee, beauty editor at trend forecasting company WGSNsays these quick fixes are "driving the popularity of this trend into a wider market" allowing customers to "try out multiple 'temporary' looks which they can achieve at home". Synthetic hair may still be popular, but it cannot be heat-styled, curled or straightened. So for more permanent extensions salons rely on human hair. With it comes an array of jargon. There is Remi hair all strands face the same way and often come from just one person's head ; virgin hair unprocessed ; double drawn all the same length.
The hair can be attached with a weave — when strips of extra hair, called a weft, are sewn into thin plaits of the customer's own hair — or attached to the customer's own hair using micro rings, or even glue. But while such terms may trip off the tongue of dedicated customers, few seem interested in the human beings it came from. When you have big, bouncy hair you feel a million dollars. Yet behind the bounce, the profit, and the rows of neatly packaged hair, is what hair historian Caroline Cox calls the "dark side" of the industry.
With the exception of a handful of businesses such as Bloomsbury Wigs, most hair comes from countries where long, natural hair remains a badge of beauty - but where the women are poor enough to consider selling a treasured asset. Cox points out that such exploitation has underpinned the industry since false fronts and hair pieces became popular in the UK in Edwardian times.
It's been going on for hundreds of years. Much of the hair on sale comes from small agents who tour villages in India, China, and eastern Europe, offering poverty-stricken women small payments to part with their hair. Usually only people who have temporary financial difficulties in depressed regions sell their hair. When Victoria Beckham said in that her " extensions come from Russian prisoners, so I've got Russian cell block H on my head ", she may have been joking, but it was not long until the Moscow Centre for Prison Hair clipping women looking for discreet admitted it was possible: warders were forcibly shaving and selling the hair of prisoners.
Thanks to such horror stories, reputable companies try to ensure the hair they sell is "ethical". Balmain Hair, Riley explains, has been sourcing hair from China for almost 50 years, and pays women the equivalent of a man's six-month salary although she cannot give me an exact figure. However, not all companies pay donors. In temples in south India devotees travel for hundreds of miles and queue for hours to have their hair tonsured, or ritually shaved. Some have prayed forothers for a sick relative or a good harvest, and when their prayers are answered they offer up their hair.
The hair is then sorted and sold, often by online auction. Great Lengths, who sell "temple hair", point out the hair is donated willingly, and they have a representative based in India who buys it straight from the temple, and ensures the money is funnelled directly back into the local community to fund "medical aid, educational systems and other crucial infrastructure projects".
But while the women who grew the hair may not be well paid, the price for the customers is rising. Yet, says Biddulph, even in a recession about half of her clients' extra hair is something they "can't be without — they factor it in to their monthly expenses. Kim Hunjan, who runs Belle Hair Extensions in North London, says: "A lot of clients talk about botox and plastic surgery, and they see this as similar. In a recent report on the hair industry, IBISWorld noted trips to salons are seen as essential, rather than an optional extra: "Many salon customers have come to view their spending on hair colouring and styling services as non-discretionary expenditure causing demand for the industry to remain more resilient than in years.
In fact, asking how women can afford the cost might be missing the point. According to Cox Hair clipping women looking for discreet, like long fake nails, are status symbols. If hair costs a lot to do, and to keep up, there is the same suggestion. It's almost as though you are living the life of a The Only Way is Essex girl or glamour model. The fact that it does not necessarily look like your own hair also reflects the influence of the sex industry on our ideas of what a woman should look like, says Cox.
Fake tans, fake teeth, fake boobs and fake nails — and you need fake hair to go with all that. The whole idea of beauty is [now] predicated on artificiality and getting rid of humanness — waxing every hair from your body but putting fake hair on your head.
Recently there has been a move towards a more demure aesthetic, she says, but one that continues to emphasise wealth. Extensions also reflect a retrogressive attitude towards women's place in society, she says. However, economic woes, and the recent rise in grassroots feminism could spell the end of extensions. It's about a 70—30, but I think it will be 50—50 soon. Yet a natural look does not necessarily mean the end of extensions in the mainstream. Instead they are becoming more discreet — used to add volume rather than length.
This trend reflects the fact that older women are turning to extensions: "Young people often have coloured extensions, middle-aged women do it for the 'wow' effect, while older women often want thicker hair," says Emir. Riley agrees: "Women's hair starts thinning at 35 but they want the beautiful hair they had at 20, and they do it by hair addition. Whatever sparked our love affair with extensions, it has deepened into something more permanent. On a rainy Thursday I watch as one of Kim's stylists works on bride-to-be Jessica Munday, who is having her hair lengthened in time for her wedding.
It's a time-consuming, repetitive and expensive process but Jessica doesn't care. If I like it I'll definitely have it done again. The hair trade's dirty secret. But underneath all that hair there's a global tale of exploitation. A woman donates her hair for auction at the Tirumala temple in India. Homa Khaleeli.
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